Illini get inside scoop on No. 11 Nebraska

Illini get inside scoop on No. 11 Nebraska

CHAMPAIGN — When Dan Conners left the Nebraska volleyball coaching staff in the summer of 2012 to join Big Ten rival Illinois, the Illini assistant knew there would come a day he’d revisit the Cornhuskers’ court.

That day is today. Well, tonight actually, when the Illini travel to Lincoln, Neb., for a 6:30 p.m., BTN-televised match against Conners’ former employer.

“Nebraska is just an incredible environment to play in, and so I’m excited to get back there and see the new Devaney Center,” Conners said Tuesday before practice at Huff Hall.

During his one season at the school — 2011 — the Cornhuskers played all but one of their home matches at 4,030-seat Nebraska Coliseum. This year, Nebraska moved to a renovated Bob Devaney Sports Center, which seats 7,907.

One thing hasn’t changed, however. Cornhuskers fans keep selling out home volleyball matches no matter the venue. The program currently holds the nation’s longest home sellout streak in the history of any NCAA women’s sport at 191. And it’s guaranteed to keep growing. The Devaney Center was sold out for the entire 2013 volleyball campaign long before the season opener.

Oh, and did we mention there is a season-ticket waiting list of more than 1,000?

“The (Nebraska) crowd is really a seventh player on the court,” Conners said. “They’re driving the momentum of the team, encouraging them.

“And they’re great volleyball fans. They know the game and they’ll cheer for the opponents if there’s a good play they make. It’s a really cool environment because they’re positive fans.”

There’s a lot to be positive about. While playing 37 of its first 38 seasons at Nebraska Coliseum, the Cornhuskers won a remarkable 93.8 percent of their matches (546-36) at that venue.

“It’s an intimidating place to play because of the fans,” Conners said.

The second-year Illini assistant also experienced another of the sport’s most daunting venues — Hawaii’s Stan Sheriff Center — while serving on the UCLA staff from 2006 to ’10.

“But at Nebraska (Coliseum), it’s a little bit tighter quarters and all those fans are right on top of you,” Conners said. “And it can get loud in there and your heart can get pounding, and that has an effect on how you play if you’re not comfortable or used to that.”

From what Conners has learned, the atmosphere at Nebraska’s current volleyball home is much like its old digs — only with more fans.

While he was with the Cornhuskers, the team played one match at Devaney Center. However, that was before the venue — whose primary tenants then were the Nebraska men’s and women’s basketball teams — was renovated with volleyball in mind.

“From what I’ve heard, they lowered the ceiling and made it more intimate,” Conners said. “From everything I’ve heard, it’s a pretty incredible place to play volleyball.”

And, at least so far, it’s just as tough a place on visiting teams as was Nebraska Coliseum. Entering tonight’s match, the No. 11 Cornhuskers are 9-1 at Devaney Center this season.

Preview: Illinois (9-11, 5-5) at No. 11 Nebraska (15-4, 8-2), 6:30 p.m. today

Setting the scene: Although Nebraska has been a member of the Big Ten only since 2011, these two teams have been frequent rivals over the years. This will be their 25th all-time meeting, with the Cornhuskers holding an 18-5-1 advantage. Nebraska has won the last seven, with five of those by 3-0 sweeps. ... BTN will carry tonight’s match live. Illinois is 1-2 this season on the Big Ten Network, including a three-set loss to Nebraska on Sept. 28 at Huff Hall.
Illini update: Illinois hopes to break out of its lose-one, win-one pattern that has held true throughout October. The Illini, who are 4-4 for the month, have not won consecutive matches since Sept. 8 (Iowa State) and Sept. 14 (Arizona State). ... Illinois is coming off its sixth victory against a ranked opponent this season, winning in four sets at then-No. 16 Wisconsin. The Illini could interpret it as a sign of respect that the Badgers rose one spot in this week’s American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25 poll. If that’s the case, however, Illinois also has to wonder why it received merely three points more than last week in the latest voting. The Illini are 6-8 against ranked foes. ... Although Illinois has experienced little success historically against the Cornhuskers — and is 1-8 all time in matches on Nebraska’s home court — the Illini can take heart in the fact that this Big Ten race has seen its share of upsets and surprise outcomes. The most recent example — and the most eye-opening — occurred Saturday, when an Indiana team that was winless in the conference knocked off then-No. 10 Michigan State on the road. “The margins (between Big Ten teams) are thin,” UI coach Kevin Hambly said. “It keeps you on your toes. That’s what’s great about the league and that’s what makes the league special.” ... Illini right-side hitter Liz McMahon has 21 and 20 kills in her last two matches, the first time in the junior’s college career she’s produced back-to-back 20-kill performances. McMahon has seven such matches as an Illini. The 6-foot-6 McMahon has played both right-side and outside hitter this season, but more recently has been used in the former role. After McMahon belted 20 kills on Sunday at Wisconsin, Hambly noted, “She’s getting more comfortable being back on the right. She’s an All-American opposite (right side) if we win enough matches. She presents huge challenges, and we need to find a way to keep her over there because she’s so good out there.”

About Nebraska: Since opening the Big Ten race 5-0, the Cornhuskers are a modest 3-2 in league matches. That’s still good enough to put Nebraska in second place, one match behind Penn State. Nebraska concludes the regular season at home against the second-ranked Nittany Lions. ... In reviewing video of the Illini’s first meeting with the Cornhuskers this season, Hambly was reminded of how Nebraska had its way with the UI defense in the first two sets en route to a .255 attack percentage for the match. “We’ll adjust a few things here and there, but the overall (defensive) plan (for that match) we liked,” Hambly said. “We played scared and we played soft, for whatever reason.” Those are not words Hambly would use about his team these days, he said. “We’re a very different team now in a lot of ways,” he said. “I think we’re playing tougher.” ... Following wins last week against Iowa and Ohio State, the Cornhuskers landed two of the Big Ten’s four weekly individual awards. Junior Mary Pollmiller, a transfer from Tennessee and former SEC Freshman of the Year, was named Setter of the Week after averaging 12.3 assists per set. With Pollmiller directing the attack, Nebraska hit .345 in the two matches. Outside hitter Kadie Rolfzen earned Freshman of the Week honors after averaging 3.9 kills and 3.0 digs per set while hitting .449. The Illini know all about Rolfzen, who produced a match-high 14 kills in the teams’ first meeting this season.